Land Rich, Program Poor

Adult programs at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tenn., are shaping the way visitors experience and enjoy the green spaces.

With 4,500 acres, Shelby Farms Park is the largest urban park in the country. More than one million people visit each year to run, bike, play, paddle, ride horses, fish, and explore. The park features more than 40 miles of trails, hundreds of acres of forest, more than 20 bodies of water, an innovative, world-class playground, a rails-to-trails project, and great spaces to connect with nature as well as with other members of the community.

As the number of park visitors increased over the years, Shelby Farms Park Conservancy (SFPC)—the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that manages and operates the park—recognized a need to help facilitate community engagement within the park as well as engagement with the park itself. It’s a big park, and helping people enjoy it is a big job!

In 2011, SFPC launched its first set of programs, all geared toward youth. But why should kids get to have all of the fun? As a recreational space, the park is for kids and kids at heart, so after the successful launch of youth programs, the conservancy decided to develop educational, recreational, and fitness-focused activities for adults.

Getting Started

The conservancy staff is a small team—only 25 employees, including park rangers—and only two staff members are dedicated to creating and implementing all park programs. With a staff this small, it’s important to work smart, which for SFPC meant finding partners in the community that are already producing successful programs and opening the door for new ways to experience the park in a more structured format.

Creating a brokered program structure was the key to a successful launch. While SFPC had space for programs, it lacked the breadth of manpower to create a diverse lineup of activities. Acknowledging that an organization can’t be all things to all people is important, and even more important is finding partners that can help fill in the gaps.

The park means many things to many people, so establishing activities that appeal to a wide range of ages, interests, and fitness abilities is no small task.

With the current structure, the only costs associated with programs for SFPC are focused around printing promotional materials (posters, rack cards, etc.). A real opportunity to learn occurred when the conservancy focused on engaging adults outside of the park. While it is essential to recruit new participants, the best audience will always be the people who are already engaging with the park. With little to no budget for printed materials, advertising outside of the park’s physical boundaries and with a digital reach on social media was a challenge, but once a core group of program participants was established, word began to spread.

Choosing Programs

The most obvious fit for the park was fitness programming. Miles of trails and acres of open space are prime locations for people to get into and stay in shape. It is important to find programs that will suit anyone. For lower-mobility visitors, Tai Chi is an excellent option and a great way to experience nature. Tai Chi classes are offered as part of the Wise Trek program, a series of recreational, educational, and social events for ages 50+. Tai Chi can be adapted for someone in a chair or can benefit the fittest of the fit. For a little extra fun in winter, SFPC offers free Chai Tea to anyone doing Tai Chi—a big hit with participants!

One of the first fitness programs was a “Mommy and Me” class in the playground, allowing parents to maintain their fitness goals while kids get their wiggles out and learn great health practices through play.

Another healthy lifestyle option is garden workshops. SFPC teamed up with the Master Gardeners Association to create a series of workshops that teach participants how to build a garden from the ground up. The workshops are formatted in such a way that they can be attended à la carte or as a series. The workshops have proven to be a low-cost, high-reward experience for participants.

Speaking of cost—programs don’t have to cost anything! Starting a book club with a central theme (environmental issues, urban design) is a great way to open discussions and create an open space for learning. For those who are seeking less engagement, board game meet-ups are a fun, free way to bring out the kid at heart in any adult.

A brokered program structure also helps cut costs—SFPC’s structure provides physical space for programs and in most cases the instructor accepts the overall cost of the program (a portion of which is shared with the conservancy to help keep the park clean, green, and safe). As a nonprofit organization, the conservancy must ensure that programs generate and maximize revenue while minimizing costs.

Overcoming Obstacles

The initial challenge at Shelby Farms Park came with the park’s size and wide range of ways to enjoy it. Initially, there were no dedicated spaces for programs. In other words, the park was land rich and facility poor. 

At first, the visitor center at the park had extremely limited space (only two small classrooms and a small closet for storage), which was frequently reserved for outside events, leaving programs out in the cold … literally! Then the programs team became creative, tailoring activities to fit under an outdoor learning arbor, and the team is now looking forward to moving into a new visitor center in 2016 that will feature a dedicated educational classroom with storage facilities for program materials. 

The great thing about adult programming is that they provide feedback, both positive and negative. Constructive criticism is a good thing! It will help shape programs moving forward and will help an organization provide increasingly engaging ones.

If your organization is considering launching adult programs, do it! Careful planning on the front end and an attitude of flexibility will go a long way.

Rebecca Dailey is a Development and Communications Assistant for Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, Reach her at (901) 222-7259, or